For my writers group one month ago, the one word prompt was “unnecessary.” We met just three days after the death of my father’s wife of thirty odd years and barely a week after my last visit with her. Here is what I wrote:
The feet are always the last to go. Tan, with elegant proportions and deep rose polish on the toes, they peek out from under the new, soft, lightweight fleece blanket, ironically printed with a snowflake design. It is late September. The gaunt, emaciated parody of a woman is in her last inning, as are her husband’s beloved Yankees on the television in the next room. Baseball, unlike ovarian cancer, is better experienced in person.
For Team Ginny there will be no playoffs, no October surprises. In July, too weak to make the trip on foot, she giddily, almost girlishly, traversed the lawn in her golf cart, motoring toward the chaise lounges surrounding her pool with a smile on her face and a sense of mischief in her bearing. She could only wade in waist deep to keep dry the fentanyl patch that delivered relief. Her shrunken arms, enfeebled legs and scrawny torso were nevertheless a deep bronze, highlighting the perfect, brilliantly white teeth in her skull. She was an eerie, ironic sight as she rearranged a cushion and carefully laid herself out in the sun. How could one be so sunbaked, so perfectly caramel colored, and yet so skeletal and weak? Had the summer sun not worked its promise of everlasting youth?
Now, drifting in and out of awareness and unable to find a comfortable position, her world has shrunk first to the four walls of her sunny yellow bedroom and then by degrees, to the four sides of her hospital bed. The side rails, extra cushions, Foley bag and oversized booties swaddling her feet until she reflexively kicks them off dwarf this once statuesque woman. She looks childlike, save for the matted grey hair and the now claw-like hands.
“Ginny, I am going to ask you a few silly questions. Where are you?”
“In my bedroom.”
“What year is it?”
The hospice nurse filled the vials of morphine, today a lovely pink. Each day the doses are tinted a different, gay pastel as a safety measure. This way no one in the household can substitute clear water for the magical fluid that, just like the pool water of her summer comfort, gives her moments of peace.
Later, she rouses, looks at me and says. “Why are you here? Am I dying?”
My sister and I share a penetrating stare and I answer.
“Yes. The cancer is winning.”
Will she remember moments from now what just transpired? My heart is beating so hard in my chest that I wonder if it is noticeable through my tank top.
By coincidence I have just read Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. What had tormented Ivan “was the deception, the lie which for some reason they all accepted, that he was not dying but was simply ill . . . This deception tortured him — The awful, terrible act of his dying was, he could see, reduced by those around him to the level of a casual, unpleasant, almost indecorous incident (as if someone entered a drawing-room diffusing an unpleasant odor) and this was done by that very decorum which he had served his whole life long.”
Dying is a necessary act. Dissimulation about its inevitability is an unnecessary and self-serving vanity. I cannot add to her torture. But given her dementia in this final inning, was Tolstoy’s implicit advice right? Was I right, or just as self-serving as the Golovin family, with a twenty-first century sense of psychological correctness substituted for the decorum of the late nineteenth? I go home to Virginia.
Days of morphine vials, sedatives, dressings for the bedsores that signify that her largest organ, her striking tanned skin, is dying. The beautiful caramel is turning to an ashy grey in her face, and a morbid chocolate brown on the contact points: sacrum, heels, elbows. She is restless, insatiable in her desire to draw breath as her heartbeat becomes erratic, her fever rises, and her urine darkens to match the dead skin on her rump. The snowflakes on her bedding cannot blanket her serenely as will the snowfall of winter.
One night when I call, the nurse tells me that Dad and Ginny are both asleep, holding hands. The next night, it is over. I call my father minutes after receiving my sister’s text. At 94 he is no stranger to death. Some day, not too soon I hope, he will be joining his three wives, the first my mother, in the Wilson family plot. He changes the subject almost immediately from Ginny’s passing to whether the government shutdown will interfere with my upcoming trip to the West Coast and his veterans’ disability check. We chuckle over the actions of the World War II veterans who wouldn’t take no for an answer when visiting their memorial, bursting through the police lines and barricades. His sports enthusiasm has shifted from baseball. For him, that season is over. Now it’s the New Jersey Devils and hockey that signal a new beginning of hope and faith in his team. Life goes on.